Celtic Fire Festival.

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Of the four major Celtic fire festivals in Ireland, Samhain or ,more contemporary, Hallow’een, is the largest and most widely known. In other cultures, this is the Feast of the Dead. Or All Souls.

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Characteristic to Irish country cooking is the use of a three-legged cauldron sitting over a fire which was kept going all day. Coastal cooking traditions varied from inland towns and districts. The idea was the same, however, and that was to feed hungry peasants. I am using a three -legged grill with fire.

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In the old Celtic calendar, Samhain marked the end of harvest and summer as well as the beginning of Winter or the “dark time” of the year. It was also a time of transition marked by the changing of the seasons and weather.

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On land, these seasonal changes forced herdsmen to bring their cattle back down from summer mountain pastures. A procedure known as transhumance. Cheeses would have already been made, perhaps to age in a blanket of sea-weed. Pigs or wild boar from the woods would have been killed and cured at this time. The process of preserving meat by curing with sea-salt was introduced by the Celts into Europe. It was also the time of year to “pit” potatoes for winter storage. Guinness goes great with sea salt. Wash your next oyster down with it.

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In coastal areas, seafood would have been preserved also. There would not have been many opportunities for off shore fishing during winter. So the techniques of smoking, brining and salting fish would have been common. I wonder if it was the Basque fishermen  who introduced salting to Ireland. Nowadays, there is a small cottage industry of sea-salt harvesting in west Cork on the Beara Peninsula, the most south westerly point on the island. The most famous mussels in the known universe come from Bantry in that same neck of the woods.

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Indeed, any opportunities for fishing would have been limited at this time of the year to sheltered coastal inlets and river estuaries. The changing of the season also influenced what species of fish were available to coastal peasants. Seasonal fish like John Dory or Saint Pierre migrated to warmer water. Other ocean swimming fish like some species of shark moved into shallower water. The rocky coastline provided shelter for rock fish like bass and codling and other flat fish like turbot and flounder. There was also plenty of oysters and rock lobster, cockles and mussels too.

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Another source of protein for coastal people was the availability of sea-gulls eggs on sheer cliff faces.. This was a risky business. You did’nt want the Feast of the Dead to be all about you and the crabs.

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Written records begin in Ireland in the 5th century of the Common Era with the arrival of Christianity. Samhain predates Christianity with its roots going back to the arrival of the Celts in Ireland around the 5th century BCE. Fire was an important part of Samhain used in rituals for protection and cleansing. But bonfires can be traced back even further in Irish mythology. Nowadays, the tradition of lighting bonfires at Hallow’een is not so prevalent as it once was.

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Thanks for reading. Eat like a peasant.

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Just about says it all.

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The Haunted Pumpkin ………….out soon in hard-cover.

Cooking For Kelpies, Syrens and Samhain.

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As above, so below……..and on my Halloween or Samhain kitchen altar, it is mostly root vegetables, leaves and herbs picked from my little kitchen garden. Halloween is the Celtic New Year. And when you live by the hook, you have to reel or creel some kind of fresh fish in for the table. This is the time of year to celebrate. And be mindful of the thin line between the living and the dead. On the wild Atlantic coast of Ireland, each fishing village will have its tradition and history. Though the weather is not as guaranteed as other parts of the planet, I still like to call the west coast of Ireland the Riviera of the North Atlantic.

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Seaweed has been a traditional fixture in the Irish coastal peasant kitchen for centuries. It has also been used as fertilizing material for kitchen gardens. Kelp grows extensively in Irish waters and it is literally there for the picking. Another reason to fight for cleaner oceans. Apart from being a seal, a kelpy was a maritime mirage of a beautiful woman luring fisher people onto hard rocks. But I want to make a sea weed stock with the kelp to fortify my fish cooking efforts. This is good because it is also vegetarian. And seaweed is an excellent source of micronutrients.

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In my seaweed stock, I braised my kitchen garden garlic, onion, leek, carrot and turnip with some thyme. They were immersed in the hot stock. They will be needed for more cooking later. Sirens and syrens.

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My traditional Irish brown soda bread will be on the Samhain table, best served warm with real butter.

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There was a time when we did not eat potatoes. They came much later. But here they are. My twist on the old favorite was to simply smash the potatoes lightly with a little bit of milk and butter. This way the potatoes retain some texture and character. i folded in garlicky, sauteed swiss chard, parsley and raw scallion. I used what I had from my garden to celebrate this Samhain. But, as far as I am concerned, you have to have potatoes with fish, somehow. My tradition. My potato dish is a version of the classic Colcannon.

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Dillisk, or dulse, is another seaweed found in Irish waters. And also found just north of Boston in Maine. Shop local when you can.

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I just broke up the dulse as chunks and threw it in. It has to be my favourite seaweed. Now we are ready to cook our seafood surprise for the Samhain syrens who live under the sea. Halloween with a mermaid.

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Goddess of the sea, keep us safe while taking your fishes. Eat like a peasant. Oiche Shamhna shona dhaoibh.